Notes on the Poetics of Erasure

hablemos en blanco
hablemos perdiendo los signos

repitamos el primer y último acto
de ser devueltos
en la cópula mínima
del polvo
en la luz

Hanni Ossott

On a visit to the 2016 Prix Canson show at New York’s Drawing Center, I came across the work of finalist Bethany Collins. She presented two series addressing the obliteration of the written word. The first consisted of practically illegible paragraphs, printed on paper, then torn and shredded except for certain isolated words; the other, a set of loose pages from the Southern Review, in which she had blacked out parts of the text (sometimes all of it) with ink. This confluence of literary and graphic subtraction, framed within a visual art exhibition, led me for the first time to interrogate the operation of erasing as an aesthetics and a poetics.

 

Art history is full of erasure, blurring and coating of diverse nature: we know about petroglyphs obliterated by the elements or the neglect of humans, texts carved in stone eroded by the wind, papyrus faded by water. We have seen x-rays of paintings that reveal hidden drawings, discarded and coated. There are also intentional erasure strategies that seek to add meaning while subtracting content from an image or text, and take the image or palimpsest to be as a sculpted stone; through these erasures, artists dialogue, criticize, abolish. Finally, we deal with the complication of the notion of “erasing” in the electronic realm –deletions that happen in closed spaces and open spaces within themselves–, and the use of erasure as a creative strategy in digital art.

It could be said that the “primary” erasure is that produced by the passage of time and the incidence of nature. Many of the texts from Antiquity that survive to this day contain blank spaces (usually denoted with brackets in transcripts) caused by stains, missing pieces, and wear. The text is thus “half-accessed,” and yet both translator and reader are able to interpret the whole of its meaning and its poetics. For instance, this fragment of a poem by Sappho discovered in 2014:

They whose fortune the king of Olympus wishes
Now to turn from trouble
to (…) are blessed
and lucky beyond compare.

As for us, if Larichus should (…) his head
And at some point become a man,
Then from full many a despair
Would we be swiftly freed.

(Transtlation by Tim Whitmarsh, published by The Guardian)

Researcher and poet Travis Macdonald argues that blank spaces in ancient documents have their own weight within the text: “We read  into them history’s tumult.” Depending on their position in the verse, the punctuation that influences them, the words that precede them, etc., these spaces can lend themselves to a greater or lesser degree of speculation, allowing the reader to participate in the construction of the meaning of the text. This is a good starting point to delve into the poetics of erasure.

In his essay “A Brief History of Erasure Poetics”, Macdonald proposes a continuity between the erasures of Sappho and the work of Armand Schwerner. In 1968, the American writer published the first part of his magnum opus, The Tablets: poems presented as archaeological finds, transcribed by a “scholar/translator” and with the following legend: “(….)” represents untranslatable passages, “+++” stands for missing text, (?) provide variant readings, and “[]” indicate “sections supplied by the scholar/translator.” Schwerner simulated the onslaught of time on a text (of his authorship) attributed to an imaginary society, the meaning of which is presented as doubly opaque. On the one hand, the translator frequently “doubts” his own reconstructions and presents multiple meanings for the same word –which complicates and broadens the meaning of texts. He also eventually intervenes to question the authenticity of a certain tablet. On the other hand, the supposed physical deterioration of the tablets generates absences and, in general, calls into question the veracity of the structures that are introduced. Similar to The Tablets, though with obvious structural differences, is the work of Jackson Mac Low, an American poet and composer affiliated to the Fluxus movement. Between 1953-1954, Mac Low created a “found” poetry experiment with passages from the Bible,  titled 5 Biblical Poems. The title of each poem contains a series of numbers that indicate the number of “events” in each line. Each event, Travis Macdonald explains, is a word or a mark of “/ ____ /,” indicating a silence of the duration that the reader chooses. While Schwerner arbitrarily modified his text, Mac Low used dice to decide how many “events” would occur on each line. We deal with two kinds of “organizing criteria” for erasure: a continuous one, which simulates climate and time, and a discrete one, more attached to the conventional meaning of algorithmic. In both cases, the association of erasure and wear with the antique –millenary tablets, Biblical verses– is evident: the text is rendered inaccessible either by its physical conditions or by its mysterious origin.

Mac Low recommended that readers be guided by their own heart rate to determine how quickly to perform the poem (a biological algorithm). Since the text was created with the explicit purpose of being read aloud, it could be said that here absence is a functional element: the blank spaces fulfill an interpretive function or, rather, serve as a sort of musical notation, as they represent a measure of time and, according to Macdonald, “the physical silence imposed by the poet.”

 

 

Another pioneer of subtractive poetry is Ronald Johnson, whose work Radio Os (1977) is a careful erasure of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Inspired by the musical voids in Lukas Foss’s Baroque Variations, Johnson impulsively bought a copy of Milton’s Poetic Work and began to cross out entire lines. The result is a “poem-by-excision” from Paradise Lost, which can be interpreted either as a derivative of the original or as an original product (and practice). Some, like Anderson himself, say that this is not a mere revision of a text but the creation of something original: Paradise Lost is the space in which Johnson sought to generate a meaning of his own (always in dialogue with the base text); therefore, Radi Os, as an independent text, does not belong to Milton. Travis Macdonald characterizes the excision process involved in Radi Os as that of a sculptor: “Johnson approaches a preexisting work with the knife of a sculptor and carefully grazes its surface, which gives rise to a strong relief.” In his view, the resulting work belongs to both writers or to none, since both the spatial disposition of the text and the vocabulary are by Milton, while the “voids” and the meaning of the text are by Johnson. In this case, erasure is a strategy to generate a “friction” (in Macdonald’s words) between aesthetics and expressions.

A fourth practitioner of erasure poetry (though his work is also painterly) is British writer Tom Phillips, who in 1966 set out to intervene a second-hand book from start to finish, employing techniques such as collage, painting and trimming. Phillips used a forgotten Victorian novel entitled A Human Document, by W.H. Mallock, and called his own work A Humument. Since its alteration began, A Humument has gone through innumerable transformations and has been edited in at least 30 versions. Phillips draws on the text, hides it, mutilates it, highlights it, blurs the line between illustration and type. His selections of words are sometimes arbitrary, sometimes determined by self-imposed algorithms; this renders the experience of reading the novel fragmentary.

 

However, Phillips does not completely hide the base text, so it is possible to look beneath the layers and discover the original piece. In fact, the writer claims, as mentioned earlier about Johnson, to use the preexisting text as a “search space.” In an interview with Fiction magazine in 1998, Phillips stated:

Why not just write something out is the question, isn’t it? Why go through such tortuous ways of finding texts if you feel something, or think something, or want to say something? The thing is, you just don’t know what you think or feel until you find some way of cornering yourself, like you’re cornered with a page of somebody else’s text and having made yourself certain rules, and being the kind of person that sticks to rules, you find something that you actually think, within that text. I always feel ‘that is right’ in some funny way, that is what I isolate from the text, and therefore it’s a statement of mine, in some sense.

Phillips isolates / highlights fragments to extract new stories from the source text, and to augment the reading with graphic interventions on the page. Several decades later, Jonathan Safran Foer did something very similar with his favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz – the result was Tree of Codes (2010). Unlike Phillips, Foer limited himself to trimming Schulz’s book: his interest was to subtract rather than add and, in his own words, to create a book “with three-dimensional life … that he could not forget his own body.” This is a complication of the poetics of erasure insofar as it extends to the materiality of the text: How does the act of suppressing parts of the text influence the physical form of the book as an object? How does it modify the conventional material appearance of the text?

tree-of-codes
A page from Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes

In the case of A Humument, erasure involves folding pages, wrinkling them, covering them with paint. In Austin Kleon’s “blackouts”, the text is covered in black paint. In Johnson’s Radi Os, the isolated text remains suspended in space, supported by the invisible structure of the text body which, in turn, becomes hyper-evident in the presence of absence. Poet Jen Bervin, one of the best-known practitioners of contemporary poetic erasure, only reduces the opacity of the base text in Nets, her faded reproduction of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In The Desert, however, Bervin completely conceals John Van Dyke’s original text beneath machine-embroidered blue threads. Mary Ruefle, another contemporary poet, uses correction fluid to isolate and select text from A Little White Shadow, a 1889 novel. The

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Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout page

aesthetic strategy that each creator chooses responds directly to how they wish to approach and acknowledge the base text: either by withdrawing absolutely from it, allowing it to emerge, engaging in dialogue with it, or adding more elements to it, rather than taking on total deletion as their main method. The criterion for approaching the source may also depend on its strengths, as the “eraser” artist can use it to experiment with alliterations, assonances, repetitions, and other formal techniques that rely on the inner rhythm of the text. The aesthetic quality of the gesture used also influences the configuration of a poetics; for instance, the revisionist character of white liquid is not equivalent to the harshness of a black stripe (as when Joseph Kosuth crosses out Freud’s words in Zero & Not: he suppresses them, yes, but they continue to be readable).

No method has the force and implicit violence of total erasure, which leaves no trace, as in Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning. In 1953, in the midst of professional frustration, Robert Rauschenberg persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing for him to literally disappear. One month and forty erasers later, Rauschenberg was able to completely remove all lines from the surface of the paper. In her monograph on the artist, Catherine Craft claims that this erasure meant “his way of confronting de Kooning’s influence. It was a peculiar and aggressive homage: it took de Kooning’s own methods to such extremes that he ended up eradicating the source: this was the supreme irony.” In this case, erasure can be understood as a playful, personal, at the same time confrontational gesture –an individual but also a political manifesto. According to curator Amelia Groom in her essay “There’s Nothing to See Here,” Rauschenberg’s gesture –defined by Jasper Johns as an “additive subtraction”– demonstrates the interrelationship between destruction and creation, and the emergence of a new icon that depends absolutely on what was previously in its place.

edek_98-298
Erased de Kooning

Since de Kooning’s erasure by Rauschenberg, many visual artists have resorted to more or less political “subtractions” from images as a strategy for political commentary. For example, between 1999 and 2004, Australian Christian Capurro enlisted 250 people to erase each image from a 246-page copy of Vogue magazine. Beyond the cultural or economic criticism implied in the work, Capurro’s blank magazine refers to pure matter; Amelia Groom argues that, devoid of meaning, the pages become pure substance. Tom Friedman’s 11 x 22 x .005 (1992) is an erased Playboy centerfold; its title, which simply indicates the measurements of the page, also reduces the piece to its pure materiality. However, though invisible, the symbolic imprint of the previous image is present in the blank space to the extent that the viewers have knowledge of it –even if they never actually got to see it. To look at empty space implies (in the spirit of Deleuze’s reflections on the empty canvas) an awareness of its potential for fulfillment.

Erasure can also be, in itself, an act of repression. The photographs that comprised Ten Years of Uzbekistan (1934) were disfigured when Alexander Rodchenko’s book was declared illegal in the country. Likewise, certain politicians of the pre-Photoshop era were known for “extracting” individuals from photographs if they had fallen from grace. Also, the thick black lines that cover phrases in classified documents make the hand of the power visible. In contrast, as in M. NourbeSe Philip’s book Zong!, erasure can be a way to impugn power: using a historical document –specifically a legal decision regarding the wreck of a ship carrying African slaves–, Philip managed to extract the voices of the drowned from the bottom of a cold, impersonal, descriptive text that reads more like a commercial inventory than a tale of tragedy.

alexander_rodchenko_ten_years_of_uzbekistan
Defaced photograph from Ten Years in Uzbekistan

To delete elements in a completed work, with a suppressive or aggregating intention, is a sort of negotiation between two voices. The original author and the “eraser” author face each other within the same space: the original author is at the mercy of the “eraser” author’s search, whereas the “eraser” author is limited by what the base text offers. And, though I run the risk of overestimating the weight of the author’s history, I suggest there is certain romanticism behind the aesthetics of erasure in what refers to its motivation: Why this text, why this technique? Is it homage, is it abolition? What does the text/image mean to the “eraser” artist? Why do Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf decide to erase the Elizabeth Barrett’s Portuguese Sonnets for her husband Robert Browning? Of all the books in the world, why does Srikanth Reddy choose to erase the memories of a former UN secretary-general with ties to Nazism?

sfo_90-91
from Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf’s collaboration Sonne from Ort, which employs Browning’s original English text and Rilke’s translation to German

But erasure also represents the possibility of obliteration to which everything in the world is subject, and this is evident in the work of the Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz, especially in Re/trato (2004): in this video, Muñoz’s hand repeatedly tries to draw the features of a face using a wet brush on a black stone. Each time the drawing is complete the water evaporates, and the artist repeats the process over and over again. Here, the useless gesture speaks of intent and stubbornness, but the impossibility of a fixed image –the constant erasure– is a reminder of the transitoriness of an identity built and fought irremissibly, despite the constant threat of physical disappearance.

According to the poet Srikanth Reddy, the “eraser” artist is a kind of archaeologist: by erasing, the possibilities of phrasing –and of configuration and signification– that are already embedded, though hidden, in the work are unearthed. In his book Francis Bacon: Logic of Sensation, Gilles Deleuze argues that there is no such thing as a blank surface, as before the artist makes his first line, the canvas contains potentially all the images that exist. The artist, then, empties the canvas instead of covering it when he begins to paint. Perhaps the same could be said of the blank page: all potential words disappear when the author imposes only a few on it. The “eraser” author intervenes on the finished and closed text to reopen the windows of infinite configuration.

Finally, I want to mention some strategies and interpretations of electronic erasure. A first reference is Super Mario Clouds by American artist Cory Arcangel, made in 2002. Arcangel took an old Super Mario Bros cartridge and modified it manually to suppress all of its graphic content, with the exception of the iconic white clouds on a blue sky. He was thus able to extract a serene and relaxing landscape from a usually frantic scene.

arcangel-super-mario-clouds

Much more recent is The Deletionist (created by artists and scholars Amaranth Borsuk, Jesper Juul and Nick Montfort), a tool to turn any website into an erasure poem. In their article “Opening a Worl in the World Wide Web: The Aesthetics and Poetics of Deletionism”, its creators claim to approach the Internet as the broader text that exists and contains a potential alternate Internet called Worl Wide Web (as opposed to the conventional World Wide Web). Users must simply drag the The Deletionist button to their bookmarks bar and press it while on the site they want to delete. When activated, The Deletionist chooses from a series of pre-established poetic rules to select and isolate certain words or characters from a web page and thus reveal the contents of the “Worl.” The program only performs this selection process once –that is, it is not possible to “refresh” and obtain a different text configuration–, which supports the idea of a universal reading of the alternative Internet, only discoverable through The Deletionist.

screen-shot-2017-01-19-at-19-51-34
The Deletionist subject to its own poetic rules

Beyond the Internet-as-text erasure, the notion of erase/delete is deeply implicated in the use of digital devices. In their article “Between Archived, Shredded, and Lost/Found: Erasure in Digital and Artistic Contexts,” Ella Klik and Diana Kamin argue that, in the digital realm, especially in the context of hardware, erasure is mainly considered in terms of what it opposes or what it can serve: memory, archiving, preservation, storage. Erasure is either “a dysfunctional act to be guarded, or a functional act that allows you to save (more files)”. Kilk and Kamin state that, if one only follows this binary logic, the experience of contemporary digitality focuses on choosing between saving or discarding. Certainly, the use of digital technology consists of an infinite chain of instantaneous decisions that, for many, already constitutes a fluid experience. It should also be noted that the ability to save more files almost always involves buying newer and more expensive devices, or paying extra to “maximize your space”; to be spared from having to constantly delete files is a privileged position. Every device has a limited capacity and, at a given moment, the task of erasing or overwriting becomes unavoidable if its use is to be prolonged. As for cloud storage, inexhaustible space remains the dream of digitality to the extent that the notion of a constantly expanding cloud dominates the popular imaginary, instead of the buildings that actually house “clouds” (and the piles of electronic waste generated by the urge to stay ‘up-to-date’ with technology).

e398350abbff80dae99e78cf8e307215
by Adam Cruces

Despite its apparent lightness (think of the quickly-emptying, “swoosh” sounding Trash application), digital erasure is not too different from analogical erasure because it also evinces its own materiality: just as Christian Capurro “uncovers” the blank paper in Vogue magazine, the need to erase our digital files emphasizes the dimensions, capabilities and restrictions of our devices. Likewise, if digital deletion is thought of as a “generative” act, in that it gives way to the creation of new files, one can establish a parallelism with analog erasure, since it is also generative in that it allows the appearance Of texts/images/meanings that were not possible before.

In order to protect documents and records from the “analog” erasures precipitated by time and climate, we have migrated them to digital media, where other types of deletion are to be dealt with –where the poetics of erasure meet their most contemporary complication. The fascination of artists with erasure could be imagined to stem, in its deepest sense, from this: an anxiety about the inability of any matter to contain and preserve everything forever. In that context, intentional deletion can be understood as act of liberation and surrender, surrender to and acceptance of the transience of the physical. On the other hand, as Deleuze asserts, blank space is also the space of possibilities. The void is open to as many interpretations as spectators; the symbolic weight of erasure springs from the tension between obliteration and creation.

References
Arcangel, Cory. “Cory Arcangel’s Official Portfolio Website and Portal.” Cory Arcangel’s Official Portfolio Website and Portal. Accessed September 15, 2016. http://www.coryarcangel.com/.
Borsuk, Amaranth, Juul, Jesper, and Montfort, Nick. “Opening a Worl in the World Wide Web: The Aesthetics and Poetics of Deletionism.” Media-N (Fall 2015). Accessed September 16, 2016. http://median.newmediacaucus.org/the_aesthetics_of_erasure/opening-a-worl-in-the-world-wide-web-the-aesthetics-and-poetics-of-deletionism/
Carter, Jordan. “The Poetry of Silence: Jackson Mac Low’s Drawing-Asymmetry.” MoMA Inside/Out. February 5, 2014. Accessed September 15, 2016. https://moma.org/explore/inside_out/2014/02/05/the-poetry-of-silence-jackson-mac-lows-drawing-asymmetry
Christopher, Roy. “Revealing Poetry: The Art of Erasure.” Roy Christopher. September 8, 2012. Accessed September 12, 2016. http://roychristopher.com/tree-of-codes
Craft, Catherine. Robert Rauschenberg: Phaidon Focus. London: Phaidon Press, 2013.
Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. London-New York: Continuum, 2003.
Dillon, Brian. “The revelation of erasure.” Tate Etc. Issue 8 (Autumn 2006). Accessed September 12, 2016. http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/revelation-erasure
Groom, Amelia. “There’s Nothing to See Here: Erasing the Monochrome.” e-flux journal No. 37 (September, 2012). Accessed September 11m 2016. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/there%E2%80%99s-nothing-to-see-here-erasing-the-monochrome/
Higgins, Charlotte. “Sappho: two previously unknown poems indubitably hers, says scholar.” The Guardian. January 29, 2014. Accessed September 12, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/29/sappho-ancient-greek-poet-unknown-works-discovered
Kamin, Diana, and Klik, Ella. “Between Archived, Shredded, and Lost/Found: Erasure in Digital and Artistic Contexts.” N-Media (Fall 2015). Accessed September 14, 2016. http://median.newmediacaucus.org/the_aesthetics_of_erasure/between-archived-shredded-and-lostfound-erasure-in-digital-and-artistic-contexts/
King, Andrew David. “The Weight of What’s Left (Out): Six Contemporary Erasurists On Their Craft.” The Kenyon Review. November 6, 2012. Accessed September 11, 2016. http://www.kenyonreview.org/2012/11/erasure-collaborative-interview/
King, Sarah. Review: Oscar Muñoz. Art in America. November 25, 2014. Accessed September 14, 2016. http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/reviews/oscar-munoz/
Luman, Douglas. “Book Review: A Little White Shadow.” The Found Poetry Review. July 1, 2014. Accessed September 11, 2016. http://www.foundpoetryreview.com/blog/book-review-a-little-white-shadow/
Macdonald, Travis. “A Brief History of Erasure Poetics.” Jacket Magazine. 2009. Accessed September 11, 2016. http://jacketmagazine.com/38/macdonald-erasure.shtml
“Tom Phillips – A Humument.” Tom Phillips. Accessed September 15, 2016. http://www.tomphillips.co.uk/humument.
Weiner, Joshua. “Friday Pick: Sonne from Ort by Uljana Wolf & Christian Hawkey.” Body Literature. 2013. Accessed September 14, 2016. http://bodyliterature.com/friday-pick-sonne-from-ort-by-uljana-wolf-christian-hawkey/
Whitmarsh, Tim. “Read Sappho’s ‘new’ poem.” The Guardian. January 30, 2014. Accessed September 12, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/30/read-sappho-new-unknown-poem-papyrus-classical
Zawacki, Andrew. “Armand Schwerner: The Tablets.” Boston Review. October 1, 2000. Accessed September 16, 2016. http://bostonreview.net/node/4849
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